The Stop! Remix and the Progression of Pop

This reflection was originally posted on November 11, 2014. 

After some repeated listening, I’ve come up with a two-part potentially controversial conclusion.

1) The original mix of (You Drive Me) Crazy by Britney Spears is actually not that bad of a mix. A mix that is almost universally considered vastly inferior than the much more popular (and I would bet more frequently played) Stop! remix, I think it is perfectly serviceable and not nearly the dumpster fire people usually make it out to be.

2) I think that people prefer the Stop! remix (as I did and still do) for a pretty simple reason that has nothing to do with the quality of the mix. My theory is this: The original mix was produced with past-facing techniques, while the Stop! mix was a harbinger of things to come (and truly sounds ahead of its time, therefore sounding significantly less dated in the years since).

I think the trend ever since the Phil Spector days has been gradually away from the Wall of Sound–type atmospheric mixes that ruled the day in the 1960s and into the ’70s. Although some genres of music have not followed this trend, I think the advent of disco and disco-influenced dance music (as opposed to, for example, The Twist) as well as the rise of hip-hop signaled a gradual shift in balance toward percussive elements in instrumentals. A Fifth of Beethoven (the Walter Murphy version) is an extreme example of this percussification from early on, but Mickey (the Toni Basil one-hit wonder) demonstrated the success you could have by de-emphasizing tonal elements of a song. (You can even see it in some of the career trajectories of people like Billy Joel—had Piano Man come out in 1988, the year that We Didn’t Start the Fire was released, it would probably seem incredibly out of place. For many reasons, sure, but I would include this one.)

It’s arguable that the “bubblegum pop” of the ’90s created a little bit of a resurgence of percussion-light music, but I’d counter that true bubblegum pop was cut off by the emergence of disco in the ’70s, and the teen pop marketed in the ’90s, while certainly not as percussive sounding as a lot of the product of the ’80s (not only Michael Jackson–style dance music but also hair metal and even prog/heavy metal as well), still showed a reliance on percussion that the ’70s didn’t have. Even though it might not be as bass-focused as that which preceded it (or ultimately took its place), that doesn’t swing the balance back toward the tonal elements of instrumentals. For example, the “airy” sound that Ace of Base is described as having is still cut with pounding drum tracks—they’re just perhaps not as noticeable because the drum tracks cut the low frequencies. The use of synth drums that occupy higher-than-normal frequencies seems to be a fairly common occurrence during this timeframe (Mariah Carey, the Spice Girls, Savage Garden, etc.)…which brings us to (You Drive Me) Crazy.

If you listen to the original mix, it doesn’t perfectly match up with the artists I just listed above. The drums aren’t cut out of the low frequencies, and there is clearly some progression that it’s trying to make. However, its differences pale in comparison to the Stop! remix.

First, the percussive effects are dialed up to 11 in the Stop! remix. Although you have the persistent cowbell in the original mix, it’s really not being used as either a danceable beat, and it could be argued that it’s almost as much a tonal element than anything (since it is kept in key). More importantly, though, the bridge is completely different. In the Stop! remix, you get five seconds of the bridge from the Backstreet Boys’ Larger than Life before the titular, well, word. This pause-type setup, which likely sounded “futuristic” and “cool” in 1999, has become a little bit more common in recent years and, while it may be a little dated, is not at all a strange thing to hear.

On the other hand, the original mix’s bridge involves not one, not two, but THREE tonal center changes, followed by a “throwback-y” guitar solo. We go from C minor into Eb major, which is fairly straightforward, and then into Eb minor, which is far enough away that it sounds at least a little unexpected. This is the sort of thing that you hear in a lot of early boy group/girl group music, and shows that her producers are maybe trying a little bit to identify her sound with what’s already been successful. Throw a cheesy guitar solo on top of that, though, and it becomes obvious that their first goal is to associate her with all sorts of established musical tropes.

The Stop! remix, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to bother with these sorts of concerns. By the time it comes out, of course, Britney is successful enough on her own that they can try pushing the envelope a little bit more. In doing so, I think the producers have unintentionally pointed the way toward the future—less emphasis on tonal elements, particularly in the verses. Although they’re not quite bold enough to really let these elements go entirely, they’re used much more percussively in their own right, which I think signal later developments.

Since the Stop! remix became the more popular version of the song, I would argue we’ve gone even further in that direction. The influence that hip-hop has had on popular music in the last 15 years is undeniable (yes, it’s been 15 years since (You Drive Me) Crazy came out). Game-changing hits are more along the lines of Crazy in Love or Umbrella or Party Rock Anthem, or even Royals. Eventually, especially over the last five years or so, popular music has taken this trend to its logical conclusion: the tonal elements, which can’t completely disappear from popular music, have -become- the percussion. Yes, dubstep and related genres are the most obvious examples of this, but think about songs like We Found Love. That opening riff serves as a tonal focus, but it’s not so memorable because of its pitch but almost solely for its rhythmic qualities.

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